One becomes a Buddhist by going for refuge in the “three gems”—in other words by saying, “I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the sangha.” But what exactly are these three gems? This was a question that vexed the early Buddhist community. When you go for refuge to the Buddha, are you going for refuge to his body, or to his mind? Because that body was the product of ignorance and subject to disintegration, it was not considered suitable as the Buddha-jewel. The Buddha was, however, said to possess certain qualities—such as compassion, concentration, and fearlessness—that are uncontaminated by ignorance. This “body of qualities” (dharmakaya) was deemed the true object of the practice of refuge.
The dharma is said to have two forms: the verbal dharma (the words and books) and the realized dharma (nirvana and the path to it). The question of what should be included in the dharma—what the Buddha really taught—has remained a problem throughout the history of Buddhism, made all the more problematic when sutras say things like, “All that is well-spoken is spoken by the Buddha.” But it seems clear that the dharma that one goes for refuge to is nirvana.
One might expect the meaning of sangha to be more straightforward. The Sanskrit term means a gathering or assembly, a collection or a crowd, hence a community. The texts say that to have a sangha of monks you need, in India, ten fully ordained monks, in a borderland, five. Furthermore, the sangha that one goes to for refuge is not just any group of monks or nuns, but those who have seen the truth, who are at the stage of “stream-enterers” or above.
If going for refuge to these three jewels makes an individual a Buddhist, what does it mean for a community to be Buddhist, for there to be a Buddhist community? When you look at the history of Buddhism, it seems to mean not the presence of an image of the Buddha, or Buddhist books in a library, but the presence of a sangha. But a sangha in what sense? Is it (a) a group of people who have taken refuge in the three jewels, (b) a group of people who believe that there is no self, (c) a group of people with shaved heads, wearing robes, or (d) a group of disciples of a particular lama or roshi? Historically speaking, the correct answer is (c). Buddhist nations tend to tell their histories around the founding of monasteries. In Tibet, for example, when King Trisong Detsen wanted to get Buddhism established, he invited an abbot and a Tantric master from India to found a monastery.
Buddhist history and Buddhist texts agree that without monks there can be no Buddhism, a view supported by Buddhist myths concerning the end of the cosmic era. In the last stages of degeneration of the dharma, it is said, all Buddhist texts will disappear (the last to go will be those on monastic discipline), the saffron robes of the monks will turn white (the color of the robes of the laymen) and, in the end, all of the relics of the cremated Buddha—the teeth, the bones, the fingernails, the hair—will break free from their reliquaries, the stupas and pagodas, and magically travel to Bodhgaya, where they will reassemble beneath the tree where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. There they will be worshiped one last time by the gods before they burst into flames and vanish.
The question, then, is: Can there be a Buddhism, as there seems to be in America, without an institution of monks and nuns? There are, of course, Americans who have become monks and nuns in various Buddhist traditions, and have played important roles there. For example, American nuns in Tibetan traditions have been leaders in the movement to reestablish the order of fully ordained nuns said to have been founded by the Buddha, a goal complicated by the fact that under the original rules, the man who has been a monk for fifteen minutes is senior to the woman who has been a nun for fifteen years. But the impact of American monks and nuns in America has been relatively minor, in large part because there is no institution to support them. In Asia, monks and nuns are accorded respect; in the U.S., they are mistaken for Hare Krishnas. As a result, they have often had trouble remaining ordained when they returned to the United States. Those who spend long periods in Korea or India or Sri Lanka, who learn the language and the texts sufficiently to be qualified as teachers in Asia, rarely remain monks when they come back home, finding a more appropriate role in the academy as scholars (witness, for example, Robert Thurman, Robert Buswell, José Cabezón, and Georges Dreyfus). Many who remain monks and nuns in the U.S. derive their authority from their garb, but would not have the credentials of a teacher within a traditional Buddhist society. Thus, the role of the Buddhist monk as teacher is often, ironically, left to the academic. It would seem then that until the monastic institution becomes established in America, American Buddhism will in many respects remain a sangha-less sangha.